Cingular is expected to this week announce its plans
for music downloads, months after Sprint and Verizon launched their own music offerings. But there's a significant difference: Sprint and Verizon leapt right in with their own music stores, trying to squeeze premium prices
out of users based on the ubiquity of mobile access. Cingular is instead partnering with Napster, Yahoo and eMusic to drive subscribers to their subscription services, where users can download tracks to their PC, then transfer them to their mobile handset for playback. While it lacks the buzz of mobile downloads, this strategy could prove smarter in the long run. The whole mobile-phone-vs.-iPod
battle has been around for a while, and it seems inevitable that standalone music players will eventually be rendered irrelevant by mobile phones with music functionality. Such phones already outsell iPods
and other MP3 players by a wide margin; the challenge for handset manufacturers and mobile operators is to get people to use them. This won't happen at first by trying to sell them overpriced downloads through the handset: Apple has continually ignored the calls for it to add some sort of similar functionality to the iPod, and it doesn't appear to be hurting sales too badly. And in any case, sideloading will be the source of the vast majority of mobile music for a long, long time -- again, the sideloading requirement doesn't hurt the iPod.
Many mobile operators position their music phones as little more than mobile storefronts for their overpriced and largely unattractive paid music offerings, not emphasizing, or even mentioning the devices' ability to play back music from other sources. This means the paid services make or break the whole idea of music on the handset: if a user's disappointed or turned off by them, they're not likely to use their handset for music at all. However, if operators emphasize sideloading, build awareness of the playback functionality of devices, and partner with familiar PC-based services -- as Cingular is doing -- then add in OTA downloads when more customers are aware and comfortable with using their phones as MP3 players, they stand a much better chance of success. Perhaps Cingular ought to have the person that came up with this plan speak to the geniuses considering putting ads into ringtones